A Word of Exhortation

nt17cWhen you begin to read a document, you want to find out what kind of document it is. You sort mail. What kind of writing is Hebrews?

In order to appreciate that Hebrews is God’s Word to you, look at a couple of questions. Who wrote Hebrews? (Who is the “I” in Heb. 13:22?) Who is the human author? Is it Paul? The text does not identify the author. The eastern church accepted Paul as the author in the 2nd century, the west not until the 4th. Support for Pauline authorship seems to have grown out of a defense of the book’s place in the canon. Origen denied Pauline authorship. The style is not Paul’s. Who is the human author? Suggestions include Barnabas, Stephen, Apollos, Silas, Philip, Priscilla, Peter, and others. Origen wrote: “But as to who actually wrote the epistle, God knows the truth of the matter.”

God is the author. Scripture is God-breathed, 2 Timothy 3:16. Men were borne along by the Spirit, 2 Peter 1:21. God spoke by various means (Hebrews 1:1), but God spoke! Thus God is the ultimate author, so listen!

To whom was it written? (Who are the “you” in Heb. 13:22?) Was the audience Gentile or Jewish? The title, “To the Hebrews,” is fairly old, and does seem to describe the book. Acquaintance with the Old Testament ceremonies is assumed, and there is a danger of reverting to them. Arguments for a Gentile destination seem less than convincing. The recipients do seem to be a specific, defined group. The concern with the tabernacle, in contrast with the temple, may point to readers located outside of Palestine.

When was it written? There needs to be time for Timothy to be arrested and then released (Hebrews 13:23), thus probably not earlier than 60 A.D. The book was probably written before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. In view of 12:4 it may be before the Neronian persecution of 64 A.D.

Hebrews was written to you. Introductory questions can help our understanding (as well as leave us with more unanswered questions), but the basic message of the book is clear. It was preserved by the Holy Spirit as part of the Scriptures for the church of all ages, and thus was written for you, who live in the first part of the 21st century.

What kind of book is it? Bear with the word of exhortation. Hebrews is a word of exhortation. The author defends the length of his writing. The “word of exhortation” is the whole letter, all 13 chapters. The author could have written more, 11:32. It is not a long letter. It can be read aloud in about an hour. Do take time to read it. The epistle does exhort. It contains rich theology. Imagine trying to understand Christ’s work as priest withou this book! It enriches your understanding of the sacrifices of the Old Testament. Paul was asked to deliver such a word of exhortation, Acts 13:15. His oral sermon parallels this written book. Both build on the foundation of the Old Testament. Don’t neglect it in your reading and study! Both focus on Christ and his work

Pay attention! You must pay attention. Obey the exhortation of this book. Exhortation (motivational teaching) is the book. (The word can also mean consolation, and that aspect is also present in the encouragement which the book provides.) While the book is highly theological it is not an abstract academic exercise. The imperative always flows out of the indicative. “If there is a widespread unfamiliarity with the Epistle to the He­brews and its teaching, it is because so many adherents of the church have settled for an undemanding and superficial associa­tion with the Christian faith. Yet it was to arouse just such persons from the lethargic state of compromise and com­placency into which they had sunk, and to incite them to perse­vere wholeheartedly in the Christian conflict, that this letter was originally written. It is a tonic for the spiritually debilitated. The study of this epistle leads us beneath the surface of things to the profound depths of our evangelical faith, and enriches and establishes our understanding of the grace of God manifested on our behalf in the incarnation, self-offering, and exaltation of him who is the Apostle and High Priest of our con­fession.” Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 1). The finality of the revelation in the Son (Hebrews 1) is an exhortation to listen to the completed Word, and not seek revelation elsewhere. Israel’s apostasy and God’s rest (Hebrews 3 and 4) warn you to strive to enter God’s rest while it is still today. The theology of Christ’s priestly work urges you to come to the perfect mediator. The emphasis on his being a priest after the order of Melchizedek calls you to trust only in Christ’s completed work. The comparison between Christ’s work and the Old Testament ceremonies warns you never to fall back into the temporary and provisional. The list of heroes of faith calls you to trust in Christ. The epistle is an exhortation to come to Christ, to trust Christ alone for salvation, and to live a life that reflects this.

Bear with the word of exhortation, for it is God, the Holy Spirit, who speaks to you. Bear with the sermons on the book, keeping in mind the practical bent and intent of the teaching that God reveals here.

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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